Ares balanced on the balls of his heels, watching his opponent, a wild and primitive joy surging through him like a wave of fire through his veins. He could hear his heartbeat echo in his head, for once free of the damnable chorus that had been haunting him for weeks. He shifted his sword from one hand to the other, feeling the warm weight tug at his arms, the metal an extension of his body. He sensed energy radiating from himself, and was unable to suppress a grin. He loved fighting; it made him feel alive, powerful, untouchable.
Fighting mortals was usually a waste of time - they tended to either scream and run away or beg for their lives. Those that had the temerity to stand against him rarely lasted more than a few minutes, even when he restrained himself with self-imposed rules, such as fighting one-handed, or not using fireballs. Hercules and Xena were among the only decent opponents he had found for decades. Now, it appeared, he had another to add to his list.
As a dragon, Iphicles was a worthy foe. He had the intelligence and experience of a trained soldier combined with a body designed for killing. For the first time in several months, Ares was enjoying himself. Combat with the dragon was exhilarating; burning off the fugue which had swallowed him of late, leaving him feeling somehow cleansed and alive.
The god examined his opponent critically. He was an impressive creature, there was no doubt about that. Bronze scales shading to copper and amber nearly glowed, covering a body made up of smooth muscle. Claws gleamed razor-sharp; the large amber eyes were lit from within by some unknown fire. A large mouth full of teeth, each as large and sharp as a dagger, and sleek wings completed the picture. Even wounded, the dragon was magnificent.
The dragon glanced warily at him, examining the tear in his foreleg. Ares stood back, watching, not willing to take advantage of this brief lull in the combat. It was somehow important that the fight be fair and honorable. He didn't want to use subterfuge or his powers to destroy this opponent. It just felt wrong; it would belittle the battle.
And so Ares stood still, waiting for the worm to make the next move. He watched as the reptilian head descended, sniffing the wound, making loud snuffling noises. After a brief moment, the dragon's great forked tongue snaked out, wrapping sinuously around the foreleg, stroking the gash from bottom to top, one pointed end gently probing within the torn skin.
The God of War observed, mesmerised, as the dragon seemed to forget the world around him, continuing to stroke and probe, almost as if he were touching a lover. Ares swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, as he remembered watching the dragon making love to their brother with that tongue. Remembered the sensations as he had been licked, the hot, wet, rough flesh on his skin.
As Ares watched, the dragon continued to lick and probe, the motions suddenly delicate and languid, almost deliberate. The god briefly closed his eyes, wondering how the tongue felt against the scales and torn flesh, almost wishing it were his own flesh being probed and stroked. Shaking his head, he opened his eyes. This wasn't a path he wanted to take. It had obviously been way too long since he'd been laid, thanks yet again to the God of Love.
Trying to control his breathing, Ares continued to regard the dragon, which appeared to be lost in the sensation of tongue on skin. The god shivered, wondering if all dragons were such sensualists, or if it was merely Iphicles himself. He shifted, trying to get comfortable, despite the fact that his leathers were suddenly too tight. He couldn't believe a dragon, of all things was turning him on.
Of course, this dragon was incredibly beautiful, not to mention a worthy adversary. It would be a waste to just kill him, after all. Maybe they could declare a temporary truce of some sort. The creature was injured, and it wouldn't be fair to take advantage of that. The rather more rational part of Ares' mind pointed out that they had been fighting, and injuries were a natural result of fighting, but the god told the rational voice in his head to take a flying leap.
While he was arguing with himself, Iphicles had finally ceased his licking, a fact that Ares only noticed when he looked up into a pair of glowing amber eyes. The dragon had moved closer, and appeared to be grinning at him. The god stepped backward, only to find himself standing with his back against a tree, his emotions still veering wildly between wanting to fight and wanting to fuck.
Iphicles stepped closer, and Ares felt hot breath against his skin. As the dragon opened his mouth, the god raised his sword, prepared to defend himself, but was again thrown off balance as the reptilian tongue darted out, licking his chest. It was smooth, but had a slightly rough texture, as if small grains of sand were dropped at irregular intervals onto a piece of glass. It was hot and moist, but not unpleasantly so. And it vibrated, flicking repeatedly at his nipples like a pair of tiny whips, rapidly striking him, causing pleasure that teetered on the edge of pain.
Then he stopped. Ares nearly growled in frustration, but he wasn't willing to give Iphicles the satisfaction. Looking again into the amber eyes, he found himself being drawn in by the fire inside, somehow losing himself, but not quite understanding how or why.
"How about a truce?" Iphicles' voice was low and rough, pitched so that the ground under their feet rumbled, but the sound itself was quiet. "I can think of things I'd rather be doing than fighting. How about you?" He raised one eye ridge in a gesture that looked eerily human.
The god inhaled sharply. His first instinct was to agree, but part of him held back. What if it was a trap? The dragon could bite him in half easily, and while he would be able to recover from the damage, it wouldn't be pleasant. Iphicles moved closer, and the god could feel warm air bathing his face, a sharp counterpoint to the cold breeze blowing in the mountains.
"I remember you watching me and Herc. You got off on it." Iphicles' voice was teasing, bringing back memories, making the god gasp. "You want to know how it felt, don't you?" The dragon's breath was slightly sulphurous, but not unpleasant, and when he exhaled again, Ares' entire body was wrapped in tendrils of warmth. He closed his eyes, felt himself relaxing into the heat, aware that he had already agreed without ever deciding to do so.
The god opened his eyes slowly, nodding fractionally to the dragon, which stepped even closer, the reptilian nose gently moving against his chest. The scales were sharp, but didn't cut. It was like having the edges of several knives run over his chest, and the knowledge that blood could be drawn with just the slightest pressure excited Ares, prompting him to move forward and lean into the caress, welcoming the slight bite as two of the scales pierced his skin, leaving light ruby welts in their wake.
Iphicles' tongue darted out again, flicking at the god's nipples, stinging, leaving small red scratches, making his knees go weak. Suddenly Ares was grateful for the tree behind him, and he leaned back, letting it support his weight. Iphicles snorted, a cloud of sulfur enveloping them.
"You know, this would be easier if you didn't have any clothes on."
Ares had to agree. Making his clothes disappear with a thought, the god stood naked before the dragon, his muscles tense with a combination of anticipation and apprehension. Iphicles' eyes slowly wandered up and down the god's body, quickly followed by his tongue. The warm, wet, slightly rough texture scraped lightly, leaving trails of damp heat over his skin. The dragon stroked Ares' chest; licking from his stomach to the base of his neck, apparently in no hurry, leaving the god shivering from the sensation coupled with the cold wind blowing against his damp skin.
Iphicles purred, a low rumbling sound from deep within his belly that made the ground tremble slightly, and his tongue began to vibrate, sending waves of pleasure through the god. He wanted more than licking, he wanted to feel the wet heat wrapped around his cock, squeezing him until he screamed, he wanted to feel it inside of his body, filling him, the rough texture scraping, giving pain as well as delight. He spread his legs wider, the back of his head striking the tree trunk, the coarse bark grating his scalp as he moaned.
Iphicles stopped licking, reaching forward with his front right leg as Ares tensed, wondering if this was an attack, if the dragon had merely been toying with its prey. His eyes followed the motion, watching as the razor-like talon approached, slowly and deliberately, the tip touching his skin, barely piercing, pulling down in a diagonal from his shoulder to the opposite hip. Blood flowed, but it was merely a flesh wound, and Ares relaxed somewhat as Iphicles' tongue snaked toward him, gently licking and probing. The rough texture irritated the wound, beginning to send delicate frissons of ecstasy through the god.
Ares wished that Iphicles was in his human form; he didn't want to just take this maddening mixture of pleasure and pain, he wanted to reciprocate. He wanted to bite and suck, to hit and cut, to feel the king's flesh, to pound into his body. But there was little he could do while the king was a dragon; he didn't even know what was an erogenous zone for the damn creature. Leaning back, bracing himself against the tree, he vowed to take the king while he was in his human form. Later.
"Are you always such a tease?" Ares' voice trembled, and Iphicles chuckled in response, small flames emerging from his mouth, close enough to singe the god, but not strong enough to hurt.
"You want more?" The dragon's voice was low and seductive, still rumbling and powerful. His tongue wrapped itself loosely around the god's hard cock, pulling for a brief instant, long enough to leave Ares gasping for more, then unwound itself and returned to stroking his chest.
The god replied with an affirmative grunt, spreading his legs further and bending his knees, bracing himself against the tree, feeling the bark gouge the flesh of his back, trying to stay upright. Looking into Iphicles' eyes, the flame he saw there drew him in, leaving him dizzy and bewildered. He wanted to kiss the dragon, but it was physically impossible. He wanted to hold the king, run his hands over the mortal's flesh, but that was also not an option.
He stopped thinking and wishing when Iphicles wrapped his tongue around his cock again, this time squeezing hard and pulling, the tongue vibrating against his entire length, the rough texture scraping slightly, the sensation almost painful but not quite so. Ares' breath grew more ragged, stars appearing in front of his eyes at the unique stimulation. His knees buckled, and the dazed god droped to the ground, whimpering as the tongue withdrew, desperate for it to return. Ares recoiled as he landed on cold, wet leaves, a sharp contrast the the heat emanating from the dragon. Ignoring the sensation, he laid back, spreading his legs, knees bent in invitation, needing the pleasure and pain.
Iphicles approached and again wrapped his tongue around the god's cock, increasing the tempo of the vibrations. Ares groaned, overwhelmed, as he felt one tip of the forked tongue caressing his scrotum, lightly scraping and weighing, rubbing and teasing. The tongue moved lower, between his cheeks, fluttering insistently against the entrance to his body, pressing slightly, teasing him, drawing more moans and gasps from the god.
Ares was drenched in sweat, the cold air sensitizing his skin further, making him shiver as much from the chill as from passion. Iphicles continued to tease, one tip of the forked tongue moving slowly and gently over the round head of his cock, stroking and rubbing in slow circles, refusing to move faster, despite Ares' repeated thrusting of his hips. The other tip teased at the entrance to his body, pushing in shallowly, barely penetrating, then pulling back out, then barely in again. The god pushed back, trying to impale himself, but Iphicles refused to allow him, slowing even further when Ares tried to take control.
The god growled in frustration, further provoked when he heard a deep chuckle from the dragon. He tossed his head from side to side, seeking some form of relief as the pressure inside him built with agonizing slowness, and Iphicles continued his maddening teasing. Ares wanted release, he wanted the dragon to move, fast and hard, but he refused to ask for it. He wouldn't show weakness, he would merely bide his time, waiting until he had a chance to pay Iphicles back for this delicious torture.
Iphicles tightened his grip on Ares' cock, suddenly stroking faster as the tip thrust deep into the god's body, striking that spot deep within him and then vibrating against it, sending waves of pleasure crashing through his lover. Screaming, Ares came, the world suddenly black except for the stars dancing in front of his eyes.
Iolaus sprawled across a wide pink sofa, contemplating the domed ceiling above him as golden sparkles and pulsing pink hearts occasionally drifted downward, floating on air currents, coming to rest on the pink marble floor before fading to nothingness. He was sure they were a perfect metaphor, but he was too tired to figure out exactly what they were a metaphor for.
He squirmed uncomfortably on the overly soft cushions, trying to force strained muscles to relax, trying to make his brain quit churning like a whirlpool. But he failed. Looking up, he could see Hercules and Aphrodite across the room, speaking animatedly, arms waving in the air. Hercules actually looked hopeful, while Aphrodite merely looked exasperated.
"They could keep arguing all night. 'Dite should be the Goddess of Arguments." Hephaestus' voice was pitched low, and Iolaus twisted his neck to try to look at the god, who lay on the floor, his head pillowed on his hands. "I think Herc's making progress, though."
Iolaus punched the back of the sofa in exasperation, feeling the soft stuffing absorb and cushion the blows as he tried in vain to get settled. He kicked at an armrest, but that merely earned him a glare from Aphrodite, so he quit.
"How the fuck are you supposed to get comfortable on these damn things?" The hunter craned his neck, feeling tired muscles protest as he addressed the God of the Forge.
A slow smile crept across the god's face. "They're not really designed for sleeping in." He winked at Iolaus, who inexplicably found himself blushing. "I just lie on the floor otherwise."
Seeing the wisdom of this advice, Iolaus pulled two cushions off the sofa and laid them on the warm marble floor, happily sinking into the softness, feeling the underlying rigidity supporting him, snuggling down in preparation for a good nap. He was beginning to drift off when he was rudely interrupted.
"Curly! Would you tell this big lunk I'm right?"
"She's right, Herc." The hunter mumbled, burrowing determinedly into his new bed. But try as he might, he couldn't quite shut out the rest of the world.
"See! I told you so!" Aphrodite's voice, triumphant.
"He's asleep! He doesn't even know what you said!" Hercules, sounding somewhat whiny.
"Can I help it if he knows I'm right, even when he's asleep?" Aphrodite again.
Footsteps, followed by shaking. "Iolaus, wake up." Great. Now Hephaestus was involved. He sat, blinking tiredly, ignoring the pull of the soft cushions below him, beckoning him to return to slumber.
Hercules, his face drawn, eyes shadowed, was standing, arms crossed across his chest, his lower lip protruding in what Iolaus recognized as a particularly bullheaded expression. Aphrodite, hands on her hips, glared up at him, looking as if she was contemplating slapping some sense into the demigod. Hephaestus sat to the side, observing, much like Iolaus.
"The problem is, he's too damn pig headed! Tell him, Iolaus!"
"Tell him what?" Iolaus had no clue what they were arguing about and wasn't quite sure he wanted to be the referee.
"I can't just erase his memories. He'll have a blank spot." Aphrodite's pink-shod foot was tapping against the marble floor, but no sound emerged.
"Okay. And what's wrong with a blank spot?" Iolaus asked, feeling it was a reasonable question.
"See? That's what I said!" Hercules agreed.
The Goddess of Love continued to glare. "Like, duh! He'll know something happened, then he'll keep digging until he finds out what it was, and the next thing you know we'll all be back here again."
Iolaus thought for a few moments. "You're right."
"See?" The goddess poked Hercules, her index finger striking his ribs repeatedly, stopping as she saw the haunted look return to the demigod's face. "Whoa, don't get bummed yet. I just said I couldn't just wipe your memory, I didn't say I couldn't help."
"What do you have in mind?" Iolaus asked, suddenly anxious, afraid that a setback would send his lover tumbling back into the dark pit that lurked inside his mind.
Aphrodite glided to the nearest sofa, sniffing as she retrieved the cushions from the floor and fluffed them, placing them in their intended positions before sitting and crossing her legs, face intent.
"Okay, what I'm thinking is, we need a cover story."
"Cover story?" Hephaestus said, settling himself on the floor again, looking up at his wife.
"Yeah. Like, we need to figure out something else for Herc to have been doing these past few months. That way we fill in his memory with something new, instead of leaving a blank spot that'll clue him in that something's wrong."
"Can you do that?" Hercules sounded uneasy. In fact, upon further reflection, Iolaus realized that the idea gave him the creeps. The gods could do anything they wanted, then erase the memories and replace them with...something else. Something that never happened. And there'd be no clue, no hint, no way of knowing what was real and what was manufactured by the whims of the gods. No, he really didn't want to dwell on that one.
Aphrodite tapped her finger against her pursed pink lips. "It's hard, especially filling in the details. But we can do it."
"Maybe if there was a reason for him not to remember details?" Hephaestus spoke up hopefully. "Maybe a head injury or an illness."
Clapping her hands, the Goddess of Love leaned forward and kissed her husband. "Great idea! Okay, we can say he was rescuing someone, maybe an entire village, and a princess too, and he fell and hit his head... No, no, wait - he was attacked by a monster and fought and killed it, but with its dying blow it hit him on the head and he spent the past few months drifting in and out." Aphrodite finished in a rush, wiggling in excitement.
Hercules smiled wryly. "How about I slipped and fell and hit my head and got some sort of infection?"
Aphrodite sighed her best long-suffering sigh, rolling her eyes. "Fine. No problem. Just cause I wanted to make it interesting..."
"But your story's *too* interesting." Iolaus spoke softly, trying not to hurt her feelings. "He'd remember more details about it, and there'd be lots more people involved."
"Besides," Hephaestus interrupted, "with Herc's version, we just need to get a healer to play along, not an entire village and various monsters."
"Fine." Aphrodite leaned back, arms crossed defensively, pouting. "See if I try to be helpful again."
They sat in silence, until Aphrodite's face lit with a smile as she leaned forward. "This is so gonna work! I can't believe we're gonna pull it off! I *love* happy endings!" She clapped, standing and twirling. "We just need to take care of a few details, then we can start!"
"What kind of details?" Hercules sounded wary.
"Mainly there's witnesses. We need to make sure that if you don't remember what happened, no one else will. Like Auto and Cupie. I'll talk to Cupie, have him erase all of Autolycus' memories about what happened."
Hercules stared, his brow furrowed. "I don't know. It's one thing to take away my memories because I asked you to, but to take his without his knowledge? That's not right."
Sighing, Aphrodite threw her hands in the air. "It's not that big of a deal, Herc! We'll have him remember lots and lots of great sex or something! He'll love it!"
"But it's wrong."
"Okay. Be that way." Aphrodite's foot was tapping again. "We'll just tell Cupid to tell him to pretend it never happened, all right? Will that make you happy?" She sounded exasperated.
Hercules smiled. "Yes, it will. It's wrong to just mess with people's minds."
Aphrodite rolled her eyes, and Iolaus had a strong suspicion that she planned to erase Auto's memories anyway.
Hercules looked up, face neutral. "What about Ares?"
Iolaus gulped as memories rose to the surface of his mind, like oil on water. Or, he mused, in this particular instance, like scum drifting to cover a pond. He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to erase the image of Hercules and Ares in bed, making love, touching each other, gazing deep into each other's eyes. He shuddered. If he was still having nightmares about it, what must Ares be dealing with?
Hephaestus spoke slowly, his eyes determined. "I'll take care of Ares. He won't want anyone remembering this any more than you do."
Hercules nodded, still pale, and Iolaus found himself wondering if maybe this plan wasn't for the best after all. But he still had his doubts. Several of them.
"Now that we have that settled," Hephaestus looked uncomfortable, "maybe we should just get on with it."
"Okay." Hercules sounded eager, even excited. Iolaus shook his head, worry bubbling in his mind.
"Before we get started, there's a few things we need to work out." Crossing to Hercules, he took his lover's hands in his own, looking up into the shadowed eyes. "Herc, I know this has been really hard for you, but just forgetting everything that's happened won't make the problem go away. It's still there, and you need to deal with it."
Hercules refused to meet his eyes. "I can't, Iolaus. This is the only way out."
"You're running away."
"Yeah, I know." Hercules continued to contemplate his feet. "But I can't face this part of myself. If I can forget, everything will be the way it was before. All the bad things inside me will be locked in that box again."
Iolaus hated seeing the agony on Hercules' face, and part of him just wanted to let go, to do whatever it took to keep the demigod happy. But another part of him knew this wasn't a solution, it was just bandaging someone with internal injuries.
"What happens the next time that box gets opened? You have to face it sometime."
"No." Hercules' voice was flat again. "I can't."
Choking back a sigh and curbing his desire to smash his head into the nearest pillar, Iolaus decided to continue. "Maybe we should try to just go back to the world, get back to normal, live for a while, and if it doesn't work out, then we'll have Aphrodite take the memories from you."
"No." The demigod turned, his back to Iolaus, his shoulders stooped. "What if I won't let her? What if I manage to fool you? It's too dangerous."
"And losing months out of your life isn't?"
"Iolaus, would you just shut up and let me do this?" The roar in Hercules' voice was so reminiscent of the Sovereign that Iolaus stepped back instinctively, his pulse quickening as he finally understood how little separated his lover from the dark side of himself.
"I'm sorry. I just want to do what's right for you." He looked up, holding out an arm in apology. Hercules took it, pulled him close and held him, and Iolaus could feel the trembling in the other man, like a small trapped field mouse or bird, the terror lurking beneath the surface of his skin, a living thing. "I'm sorry." The hunter rubbed his hand in circles against the small of the demigod's back, trying to reassure, hearing his lover's breathing slow, the trembling subside.
Hercules stiffened, pulling away. "Fuck!"
"What?" Iolaus was left clasping air, disoriented.
"Iphicles. Aphrodite, what about Iphicles?"
"What *about* Iphicles?" Iolaus tried to hide the exasperation in his voice, hoping he hadn't whined. Iphicles whined. While Iolaus tried to understand the bond between the brothers, he didn't much like the king and certainly didn't see why he was so important just now.
"We split up, remember? You were going to see Xena and Gabrielle; I was going to visit Iph. I never made it."
It seemed like another lifetime, but Iolaus remembered. Hercules wanted to see his brother; Iolaus wanted to avoid him. The memories of Ajax's death were still too fresh, still haunting him, his anger at Iphicles still simmering. So they had gone their separate ways, agreeing to meet when they were finished.
"Herc, Iph's an adult. I'm sure he's fine." The hunter felt an irrational surge of anger at the look on his lover's face.
"He's not fine. Rena and the baby died, then Mother, and he hasn't been the same since. He seems fine on the outside, but he's shattered on the inside. I promised I'd be there, and I wasn't." Iolaus could see Hercules flagellating himself, this guilt added to the already sizable mountain of self-perceived transgressions and failures in the demigod's head.
"He's fine." Both looked at Aphrodite, her face less expressive than usual. "I talked to him recently and he was fine."
"You checked up on him while I was here?" Relief was writ large on Hercules' face.
The goddess looked at her feet, scrawling invisible designs on the floor with her shoes. "Yeah. We had some interesting talks."
"I want to see him. Before we do this. I need to apologize, to explain this to him. I don't want him to be mad at me." The demigod looked intent, anxious.
Aphrodite gnawed her lower lip, still looking at the floor. "He's real busy, you know. Doing whatever it is kings do."
The goddess sighed. "I'll go and ask him, but that's the best I can do, okay?"
Hercules enveloped her in a hug, easily dwarfing the tiny figure.
"Thanks 'Dite. For everything."
Iphicles gazed down at the figure sprawled before him. The god was beautiful; his face flushed, hair touseled, black eyes burning, and this time Iphicles knew that the flames within were for him, and him alone. Ares looked up at him, licking those full, lush lips, and smiled. It was a predatory smile, and Iphicles shivered in fear and lust.
He wanted to touch Ares. Wanted to feel hot flesh under his hands, wanted to feel hands gripping his skin, bruising, marking, holding. The need burned within him, pulsing, demanding, he could feel it with every beat of his heart. He wanted to be touched, to be held. He needed to feel a connection with another person, to not be alone anymore.
Throwing his head back, Iphicles roared, twin columns of flame licking into the sky, as he tried to understand. Why did he need this? Dragons didn't need anyone. Dragons were solitary creatures. Dragons enjoyed being alone. And he was a dragon. So why did he feel this pain, this desire? Why did he want to be held by Ares, why would he willingly die if only for one more chance to be with someone else?
Lowering his head, he again looked at Ares. The god was sitting up; his expression was indecipherable, but Iphicles could smell the fear, the uncertainty, the confusion. And below that, something else. Something he couldn't identify. Lust, perhaps, or satiation. He didn't know, didn't care, nothing mattered anymore.
He wasn't a dragon, not in the sense that counted. He was no more a dragon than Braxis had been a human. His form had changed, but on the inside he was still the same pathetic, needy person he'd always been. He trembled, caught in a cyclone of emotions. Anger at Aphrodite for making him believe he could have what he wanted. Anger at himself for being weak and needy, for being a failure. Lust. Hope. Despair. Self-pity. Desire. Pain. Loneliness.
Ares continued to stare, his black eyes unblinking, as Iphicles trembled, shattered into small pieces, confused and afraid. He wanted to be held, but he didn't want to want it. How could he purge himself of emotion? And if he did, what would he be? Would he truly be a dragon, or would he be a monster?
Perhaps this was what made humans different from dragons. What Braxis had thought of as a herd mentality was really just a need for each other, a need to reach out and connect with others. If that were true, what happened to those cut off from the herd, isolated and alone? Was he doomed to become one of those shattered souls who wandered the streets, wandered the country, muttering to themselves, always looking for something and never finding it?
Iphicles watched as the god stretched, each muscle sharply defined. He was beautiful, in a dangerous, menacing sort of way, like a wild creature, untamed and unpredictable. The king almost laughed as he realized: Ares was probably more of a dragon than he was; yet the god appeared in a human form, while Iphicles, who was human, was in the shape of a dragon. The irony choked him, strangling his laughter, and all that emerged was a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan.
Ares stood, a flash of blue light surrounding his form, and he was fully clothed, his expression completely impassive. It was as if nothing had happened, there was no sign of sweat or exertion, his bruises, cuts and burns were healed, the smooth skin flawless and unmarked. Iphicles stepped back, his senses overwhelmed by new scents, new information that he was unable to process. With another flash of blue light, the god disappeared, leaving the king alone. Again.
Iphicles lowered his body to the ground, feeling the myriad aches and pains, but they didn't concern him, not like the pain within. Resting his head on his front legs, he closed his eyes, listening to the wind screaming through the mountains. It sounded desolate, desperate even, abandoned and primal. It was a sound of anger and fury and pain, a sound of loneliness.
It took him several minutes to realise that the sound wasn't the wind. It was him.
The Halls of War
Ares materialized in his throne room in his trademark blaze of blue light, looking around in disgust at the filth, his nose wrinkling at the stench of old blood and burned flesh. Even he had to admit that it was rather excessive. The soles of his boots stuck to the floor, making a sucking sound with each step as he made his way to the onyx throne, where he sprawled, one leg thrown carelessly over an armrest as he stared into the darkness.
A wave of his hand and the room was clean, the air fresh, the odor banished. A glance, and the fire and torches were lit, making the room, if not precisely welcoming, less stygian than it had been. The god sighed, resting his chin on one fist, pondering.
He had planned to kill Iphicles, not have mind-blowing sex with him. This was completely unplanned. It was unacceptable. It was all the God of Love's fault. He'd been celibate far too long and jumped into the sack with the first person...creature...whatever, to come along.
While Ares would be the first to admit that he was easily distracted, this incident had unnerved him. He had allowed himself to lose focus, to let the dragon manipulate him, to give in to his lust. It should never have happened. Worse, he merely felt confused and vaguely dissatisfied; the rage within him had vanished. Something about that damn dragon, the look in its eyes, had done something to him, made him feel... something. Something strange and unknown, something that had caused him to return to the safety of his temple, to the familiar surroundings, away from those amber eyes that burned, threatening to draw him into their depths, never releasing him.
The god attempted to summon that hot, red, pulsing rage, closed his eyes and remembered flying in the skies, screaming his love to Hercules. But instead of rage, what he felt was extreme humiliation. Embarrassment. He suddenly wanted a bath, stifled the urge to wash himself, scraping skin raw in the need to cleanse himself. The anger still simmered below the surface, but it refused to boil, refused to bubble, refused to possess him completely.
The fingers of one hand tapped erratically on the armrest of his throne as the god continued to ponder. He generally avoided introspection, preferring action and violence instead, but his usual solutions hadn't worked. Not only that, but they had left him in a more precarious state than before. No, he needed to think about this latest incident, needed to examine it so he could defeat it.
Ares stared into the flames writhing in the fireplace, watched the fire jump and twist, reaching greedily for more, more to consume, more to assimilate. He felt like the flames, searching, jumping, reaching for something that was out of his reach, something he couldn't even identify. Fire was powerful. It cleansed, it destroyed; it brought warmth and light, but it also brought death and destruction. And it was contained within a stone enclosure, unable to achieve its goal, appearing domesticated, but able to turn on those that would forget its power.
Mortals didn't realize that fire had a form of consciousness. It was primitive, basic, it had no sense of individual identity, but it had a nascent form of self-awareness, a need for self-preservation, a need to conquer. Fire was an element, one of many. It was single-minded. It wanted freedom, it wanted to consume, that was all.
Ares sighed, dimly remembering a time when the gods had been similar beings. They wanted freedom, wanted power. But as they grew stronger, they had become individuals, and with individuality came personality. And with personality came confusion, came wanting, came needing. They learned of pleasure, pain, subtlety. They patterned themselves on mortals, on humans, and developed human-like traits.
And therein lay his problem. The part of him that was human-like was clouding his judgement, causing this strange ache within him. The solution, however, wasn't quite so clear. Could he excise that part of himself? Could he retreat, become nothing but War, nothing but savagery and bloodlust? And was that really what he wanted? While these human-like emotions were an annoyance, they still brought satisfaction and pleasure. He enjoyed plotting and manipulating, enjoyed sex and lust. And if he were to retreat to a more primitive form of being, it would still be a retreat. The God of Love would win this battle, and Ares refused to allow that.
He continued to stare at the flames, his eyes unfocused, as his mind drifted back to the dragon. He had planned to kill it, but the creature had been so magnificent. A shudder rippled through his body as he remembered the dragon's skillful tongue, the sleek scaled body, the graceful wings. Despite what others said, Ares appreciated beauty, and the king's dragon form was beauty given shape. It was lethal and elegant, a killing machine, perfection in combat. It was worthy of admiration and respect. It was like the fire.
Perhaps the problem was that he had attacked Iphicles in his dragon form. Ares frowned, trying to remember what he knew of the King of Corinth. It was very little, which irritated the god. He knew Iphicles had been offered the crown after Hercules had refused it. He knew the king was known for being moody and sullen, and he had a bad temper and a tendency to whine. What else?
The God of War was distracted by the soft sound of a throat being cleared. Looking up, he saw Discord, standing a safe distance from his throne, eyes downcast, hands clasped behind her back. His eyes narrowed as the god realized he had been so engrossed in his thoughts that he hadn't even noticed her arrival.
"What?" He stood, and Eris stepped backward, looking at him, but avoiding his eyes.
"I thought you should know...." She trailed off, glancing at the floor, rubbing her palms on her skirt.
"I heard Apollo talking about you. Talking about, um, you know, the, um, the thing. The thing that didn't happen."
Gritting his teeth, Ares stepped forward, listening in satisfaction to his twin's squeak of panic, smiling as she scurried backwards, her eyes darting to the dark corners, seeking refuge. "And?" He pitched his voice low, menacing.
"I was, I mean I tried to tell him it didn't happen, but then Cupid beat me to it. Said he'd started the rumor as a joke. He said it didn't happen, and told Apollo if he tried to pass it on he'd look like an idiot. And I told him he better not cause you'd kick his ass."
The God of War stood still, fingers caressing the hilt of his sword as he thought about this latest development. Apparently Cupid, and probably Aphrodite too, was trying to take care of damage control. Yes, they had witnessed his weakness, but still, this could be used to his advantage. The God of Love had proven himself to be much more intelligent and cunning than he let on. Perhaps the same held true for his own world's love gods. And they wouldn't want anyone to know, wouldn't want anyone to suspect that they were actually capable of planning, that they were potentially formidable enemies.
Ares' smile grew wider. He now had information, and information was power. Perhaps there was an up side to this disaster after all. He'd have to pay more attention to Aphrodite and Cupid in the future. In the past he had dismissed them as fluffy idiots, but recent events were showing him that a pair of tricksters had deceived him, like all the rest.
Shaking his head, Ares chuckled. He had to admit, the two of them were consummate professionals. Now, they had to protect him to cover their own asses. It was a brilliant plan, but it left them at his mercy. Of course, he could be benevolent. Until they crossed him. Then the real fun would begin.
Eris raised her eyes to her brother, gnawing anxiously at her lower lip, her expression incredulous. "So, everything's okay?"
Ares continued to chuckle as he returned to his throne. "Oh, yeah. Everything's ducky. Just ducky." He had no intention of sharing this new information with his pest of a sister, but he couldn't stop his smile. Life was turning around; he would land on his feet, as usual.
"About Leuctra..." Eris' voice was still hesitant, although she appeared more confident.
"What about Leuctra? Those two mercenaries, Agathon and Pelios, are supposed to attack. It'll fall. Then I'll put my puppet on the throne." He shrugged. It was a good plan, and the two warlords were actually capable of pulling it off. The God of War straightened, frowning, as Eris shook her head. "What?"
"Agathon and Pelios, they're, well..." The Goddess of Discord grimaced, drawing one sharp black fingernail across her throat.
"Damn." Now that she mentioned it, he did vaguely recall killing them. It had been an incredibly stupid move, in retrospect. "Fuck."
"I found a replacement," Eris said, standing taller, licking her lips.
"Good." Ares waved his hand. While Leuctra held long-term strategic value, he had to finish cleaning up this mess before he moved on. Moreover, he *did* owe Eris some reparations for kicking her ass. "You take care of it."
Eris smiled, her face lit with feral glee. "Really?"
"Really. But don't screw it up."
"I won't. I swear." The goddess nodded eagerly, disappearing in a flash of yellow light.
The God of War reclined in his throne, picking up the threads of his thoughts where they had fallen. Iphicles. The problem was obviously with the king's dragon form. In human form he'd be much easier to kill from an emotional point of view. The man had been a widower for over a year, and had taken no lover since his wife's death. Even Ares had heard that on the grapevine.
So, he mused, the king was probably a much better-looking dragon than human. His human form was probably short and fat, a balding bureaucrat. Kings usually were, after all. Too much wine, too much power, too much good living made them slow and self-absorbed. While he might hesitate before destroying a creature as beautiful and majestic as the dragon, an unattractive human would present no problems.
He'd just wait a few days, give the king time to return to the castle and let down his guard, then he'd kill him.
Iphicles continued to stare, blankly, at the ground, his head pillowed on his front legs as he absently tugged at a few loose scales. Too many thoughts, too many emotions. He wasn't usually the introspective type, preferring to yell and strike out, preferring actions to words. He had always avoided examining his own feelings, not to mention his motivations, too closely. Of course, maybe that was why he was in this state. Even he had to admit that ignoring a problem just made it worse, and he had let far too many black thoughts and emotions run wild in the dark recesses of his mind for far too long. Now, the time had come to face them and conquer them.
Of course, he mused, that was easier said than done. It was one thing to announce that you were going to win a battle, but quite another to accomplish the task. The idea of ignoring those ugly parts of his psyche was tempting; it would be so easy to continue to forget them, continue to ignore and deny them. But they would resurface again, stronger, and one could only run for so long. Better to make a stand now. He should have faced his inner demons years ago, when he had Rena by his side to lend him her strength, but he had been trying so hard to be perfect for her that he hadn't allowed any but the quickest glimpses into the corrupted part of his soul. Despite what she said, he was always terrified she would grow to hate him, to look at him with contempt, and he couldn't bear that thought. Another demon he had to deal with; his own insecurity.
He was sure Hercules could deal easily with this sort of thing. Everything in life seemed to be so easy for his brother. Not that he had to, of course. His brother was perfect, open, warm, and good. There were no trolls lurking under the dark bridges of his mind. In addition, even if one were to get lost and stumble in, Hercules would probably dispatch it without breaking a sweat. Either that or feed it and give it a lecture on good versus evil, which would make it change its ways and roam around doing good deeds. However, for the normal humans in the family, this was a challenge.
This thought provoked a chuckle, small flames caressing his claws. Here he was, a giant dragon, and he was still thinking of himself as the normal human in the family? It was time to face reality; he wasn't normal. He had been, long ago, but no more. He was a king, responsible for an entire kingdom. And he was now a shape shifter, capable of transforming into a flying reptile that breathed fire and had sex with the God of War. No, definitely not normal, not by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps not even quite human.
Iphicles sighed. At the same time, he was altogether too human, and he needed to face that fact before dealing with anything else. He was human. He wanted to be around other humans. He needed companionship, friendship and love. He'd been running from his own desires, letting his fear of abandonment and pain propel him headlong into self-imposed isolation. Instead of running from his loneliness, he needed to face it and defeat it. Try talking to people, getting to know them, making friends.
Inside, Iphicles cringed. He wasn't proud of it, but the truth of the matter was that he didn't know how to relate to others. He always seemed to trip over his own tongue, say the wrong thing, laugh at the wrong time. It was easy when he pretended, played a role, made believe he was someone other than just plain Iphicles. He could wear the mask of the King and be polite, charming, and diplomatic. He could wear the mask of Warrior and fight with the best, trade battle stories around a dying fire, brag of his own exploits. He just wasn't sure how to go about being Iphicles. He wasn't even sure he knew who Iphicles was anymore.
Time to learn. Rising to his feet, the king stretched, idly shaking the sleep from his wings, flexing his claws, rolling his head to work the kinks out of his neck. He'd fly back, land near the castle, then change back into a human and walk back in. Not much of a plan, but he could always blame it on the gods again. They'd been meddling in his life so often of late that they owed him. Once back in the castle, he'd just have to work on taking things one step at a time, starting with making reparations to the elderly couple whose fruit trees he had immolated.
Iphicles began to beat his wings; again marveling as he felt muscles stretch deliciously, the wind blowing against his skin, the nearly dizzying sensation of power. He wasn't going to give this up. He refused to walk away from the joy of flying, the ability to soar above the clouds, the feeling of freedom. He'd be human most of the time, but he would also make time for being a dragon. It would be his reward for putting up with some of his council members.
As he began to rise, Iphicles' nose was assaulted by a strange new scent. It was a mixture of roses, jasmine, musk, freesia and other strong floral scents he couldn't identify. It was sweet, heavy and cloying. Golden sparkles and pink hearts filled the air, a shower of pink glitter floated from the skies, sprinkling his head, surrounding him like a pastel fog.
He sneezed, accidentally setting a tree on fire. He'd really have to work on that.
"Hello, Aphrodite." He somehow sensed her before she materialized; not that a person had to be Socrates to figure out whose arrival was heralded by the excessive display.
"Hey there!" Aphrodite crinkled her nose at him, her voice as perky as her cleavage. "Whoa, dude, you are one gorgeous hunk of dragon meat. I can see why Ares has the hots for you."
"He does?" It slipped out, the pathetically needy note in his voice making Iphicles cringe.
"Oh, totally." The goddess waved her hand negligently. "He just hasn't figured it out yet. He can be kinda slow like that. Anyhow, I'm here cause Herc wants to see you."
"He does?" What was it about Hercules, that he could reduce the gods to his personal staff? "So you just came to fetch me?"
"Hey, don't get all defensive, babe. He's been through a lot lately, you know." The Goddess of Love placed her hands on her hips, thrusting out her cleavage as well as her lower lip.
"Uh huh." Sure he had. Lots and lots of sex with Ares, most likely more sex with Iolaus, the poor hero was probably exhausted. Iphicles shook his head. This was wrong; he just decided to try and break out of his old patterns, but at the first chance to do so, he slipped easily back into the old familiar rut. This didn't bode well.
Aphrodite crossed her arms over her chest and glared, but the overall effect was hampered by the way her forearms pushed her breasts even further up and out. Iphicles thought somewhat absurdly that she could put someone's eye out with those things.
"Look, dude, he's in bad shape, you know? He wants to talk to you cause he's *worried* about you. Give him a break, okay?"
This gave Iphicles pause. Herc was worried about him? This was unexpected, especially considering the fact that his brother hadn't bothered to contact him in months, had abandoned him in favor of Ares and had helped to fuck up his life in general. The image of Hercules and Ares, making love in the air as he was left behind, alone and forgotten, rose in his mind, searing and burning, the pain still sharp, ripping and tearing. And now, suddenly, Hercules was concerned. Iphicles shook his head; as usual, Hercules left him wondering what was going on and unsure how to react. He couldn't even be bad without doing it in a fundamentally good way.
Hercules was always so perfect, always so caring and thoughtful, strong and confident. It left Iphicles feeling small and inferior, weak and frustrated, and more often than not that frustration mutated into anger, then self-loathing.
He tried to be a good brother to Hercules, he honestly did, but being near the demigod just somehow made him feel as if he were under attack. No matter how hard he tried, Hercules' words and gestures, his looks and body language were always filtered through a lens of resentment, leaving Iphicles looking for hidden meanings, double entendres and subtle criticisms. Even when they were in bed, he found himself wondering about his brother's motivations, his underlying emotions. Hercules always kept himself under control, never allowing anything to get under his skin, further frustrating Iphicles as he struggled to understand him.
It was just like Herc to summon him when he was down, and to be caring and magnanimous about it. Couldn't his brother just once be selfish, or angry, or depressed like a normal person? Sometimes Iphicles yearned more than anything for a glimpse of a younger brother who was even slightly weak and imperfect, who would lean on him for once, let him lend a shoulder or an ear, instead of always being the strong one. It would be nice to feel needed every once in a while.
Aphrodite tapped her foot, clearing her throat in an obvious bid for attention. "Hello? Let's get a move on here, okay?" She looked at him expectantly as Iphicles returned her stare, confused. Was he supposed to fly them there, wherever 'there' was?
The goddess threw her arms in the air. "Human! You need to be *human*! I'm not letting you into my temple looking like this! You're all muddy and bloody and wet and yucky, and you're way too big. You'd, like, trample the furniture or something." She waved a hand in the air exasperatedly. "So change already! Let's go!"
Iphicles blinked, listening to Aphrodite muttering to herself about men, furniture and messes. Based on his limited experience, he was beginning to believe that all of the gods were completely insane. Not that he had much room to talk, of course, but it was an incredibly disconcerting thought.
Nevertheless, Aphrodite was right, in her own fashion. It was time for him to be human again, and not just because of her furniture. Changing back into his human body would be the first step toward facing and conquering his inner voices and trying to become a better person. It would be symbolic. Plus, he had to admit, he didn't want to explain the mess he'd made of the past several months to Hercules. If he looked and acted normal, maybe his brother wouldn't notice anything.
He found the knowledge of how to return to human form lurking in the back of his mind, as if it had always been there. Where changing into a dragon had been almost painful, changing into a human was much more anticlimactic. There was a sensation of dropping, as if he had unbuckled heavy armor and let it fall to the ground, and the cold wind suddenly wrapped around his skin, embracing and chilling him, and he realized that his feet were mired in icy mud which squished between his toes.
Iphicles was dizzy, weak and awkward, keenly missing his wings and scales. He felt off balance, as if he were in a completely alien body. It was strange to think that the dragon's form was more comfortable and familiar than the one he had worn his entire life. When he opened his eyes he found that the world looked much flatter and dimmer, as if several colors had been leached out of it. His ears felt as if they were plugged with cotton, and he sniffed, trying to understand where all of the fascinating scents had disappeared.
He was distracted from his new view of reality by sheer physical discomfort. He was naked, wet and cold, shivering uncontrollably as his jaw clenched painfully, trying to force his teeth not to chatter. He wrapped his arms around his chest, hunching his back, hoping to contain what little warmth remained in his body, sharp pain from from his torn forearm shooting through him, turning the edges of the world a fuzzy shade of black. He was cut and bruised, bleeding sluggishly in the cold from several wounds, courtesy of Ares. Looking around, he saw Aphrodite, clad in her pink lace, unaffected by the temperature, gazing hungrily at him and licking her lips.
The king amended his earlier opinion of the gods. Not only were they all completely insane, they were also perpetually horny. And self-absorbed to a degree that he suspected a mere human was unable to grasp. He straightened himself, the muscles in his back and shoulders spasming as he tried to stop the shaking, tried to look as if he were in control.
"Some clothes would be nice," he said, trying not to clench his teeth, the strain audible in his voice.
Aphrodite looked startled, the wind barely stirring the pink gauze she wore. "Oh. Okay. But you look so much better this way..." Her voice trailed off as she raked her eyes over his body one last time. Normally Iphicles would have been flattered at the attention, but right now he really didn't want much of anything to do with any gods. Unless, of course, it meant getting warm.
Iphicles heard a noise, a musical sound almost out of the range of his hearing, and he was surrounded with floral scents, golden glitter and translucent hearts. As the cloud surrounded him, he felt his wounds close, bruises heal. More important, he was dressed in warm, heavy clothing, a thick blue wool cloak around his shoulders. He pulled it tight, feeling his cramped muscles relax, and watched as a solitary fuschia heart drifted slowly past his face, riding an air current.
He held out his hand, catching the heart; it sat, resting on his palm. It tingled slightly, and he could feel it pulse, beating as if it were a real heart. The pulses grew weaker, spaced further apart, and with each pulse some of the color seemed to drain from the small object, until it ceased beating at all and faded away to nothingness. The experience left him feeling sad, and he pulled his hand back inside the cloak, holding it shut against the wind's groping claws.
"So, ready to go now?" Based on the look in Aphrodite's eyes, Iphicles felt that saying yes was the only appropriate response. Even as he nodded his assent he felt a sickening lurch, a sensation of motion, as if he were being dragged quickly by his innards, and the world disappeared in a pink haze.
Iolaus paced. He really had no choice; the nervous energy flowing through his body demanded he move, refused to allow him to stay still. When he tried, he twitched, as if his bones and muscles wanted to leap out of his skin and continue moving without him.
He paced under Aphrodite's pink and gold dome, paced in the majestic serenity of her temple, paced as he was showered with icons of love. His mind screamed at him that this was wrong; this plan wouldn't work, that it would just make everything worse. But he couldn't see any other way out, despite his thoughts chasing themselves in circles trying to find another solution. Nothing else would work. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, wincing as he tried to stop the whirling ideas, trying to stop the pounding in his head, trying to stop the premonition of doom that shouted wordlessly in his mind.
No one else seemed to notice Iolaus' apprehension. If they did, they didn't comment on it. Hephaestus was quietly polishing a golden crown, his rough fingers caressing the delicate metal lacework as he buffed it until it seemed to radiate light. Hercules sat on one of the sofas, his elbows resting on his knees as he stared into the ether. His breathing was even, his face expressionless.
Iolaus knew what Hercules was doing; he was composing himself, shutting everything out so he could focus on the task at hand, namely Iphicles. When his brother arrived, he would see no sign of the turmoil in his mind. Iolaus had watched this more than once. Before he visited Iphicles, Hercules appeared to draw in upon himself, making himself change for his brother's sake. He seemed to do what Hephaestus was doing: he took his soul out and polished it until it shone, the bright light hiding any flaws.
"Hercules," Iolaus said, standing in front of his lover, trying not to fidget too much, "Would you snap out of it? I'm losing my mind here. Say something." He ran one hand through his hair, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"What do you want me to say?" For the first time in recent memory Hercules' voice sounded strong and confident.
"I don't know. Anything. Just distract me." He paused. "How about the weather?"
The demigod looked up and quirked an eyebrow. "It looks like it's raining pink hearts."
"Yeah, well, that's pretty normal around here."
Iolaus perched on the sofa arm next to Hercules, his legs swinging in the air, skimming the floor as he rocked himself slightly.
"Why do you do this?" Iolaus said, staring into Hercules' clear blue eyes, the shadows hidden as if they had never existed.
"This whole thing where you act so perfect for Iphicles."
Hercules sighed. "Iolaus, I don't want to fight over Iph again. Not now, okay?"
"Hey, I don't wanna fight either." Iolaus raised his hands in a gesture of supplication. "I'm just curious. You don't do this for anyone else."
"Iphicles has a lot of problems." Iolaus snorted at that. Even Hercules jumped on the 'poor, pitiful Iphicles' bandwagon. Hercules glared. "I don't want to burden him with my problems on top of his own. He has enough to deal with, and a lot of it's my fault." He paused, his face softening. "Besides, I like helping him. He makes me feel needed, and if helping him and being strong for him is the only way to be part of his life, that's what I'm gonna do."
The silence between them stretched into long minutes, the only sound that of Hephaestus' cloth whispering over the gold he polished. Hercules returned to staring at the walls, while Iolaus resumed his restless pacing.
Erasing Hercules' memory wouldn't help in the end, although it was an acceptable short-term solution. The question was, what happened the next time the hero had to deal with his dark side? He couldn't keep denying it existed, couldn't keep desperately shoving it into a box in an abandoned corner of his mind. If he did that, he just gave it strength, and someday it would break free.
Iolaus stopped pacing briefly to rest his head against a column, resisting the urge to repeatedly bang his skull against it. The column was smooth and warm, radiating heat evenly, and he could see glittering gold energy racing along the marble's veins, like blood within a body. He closed his eyes, trying to order his thoughts, trying to tame them, make sense of them.
Maybe the key was to get Hercules to face himself gradually, not in one climactic confrontation. Baby steps instead of giant leaps. It would be up to him to act as a gatekeeper of sorts, devising ways to force Hercules to look at the darkness within, and evaluating when to stop and rest. It would be difficult, but having lived through the past few months, Iolaus knew it was necessary. The pressure inside Hercules could be bled off slowly and safely, or it could explode.
The scent of roses and jasmine distracted Iolaus from his churning thoughts, and he opened his eyes to see Aphrodite arrive in her usual blaze of light and hearts, Iphicles at her side. He wore a thick blue wool cloak that he held tightly closed, his hair was damp and plastered to his head, and his cheeks were red, as if from the wind. Iolaus wondered if it were winter outside, in the world. They had been in Aphrodite's temple so long that there was no sense of time, no change in temperature or season. It was a place free of time and space, suspended in the ether for all he knew. He didn't even know if it was day or night.
Iphicles looked pale, somewhat thinner than the last time Iolaus had seen him. He reluctantly let go of the cloak, letting the material swing free as he looked around, eyes wide with wonder. A cloud of gold dust settled upon him and he sneezed, then looked startled and laughed.
"What?" Aphrodite was looking at the king as if he were insane.
"Nothing's on fire. It's different." Iphicles continued to chuckle, and this time Aphrodite threw her head back and laughed. Iolaus shrugged. He should know better than to try to understand any of Hercules' family. Still giggling, Aphrodite wandered to the far side of the room to sit next to Hephaestus, kissing him on the lips, running her fingers through his hair. Iolaus let his back slide down the marble column, feeling its smooth coolness as he sank to the floor."Iph."
Hercules sounded confident, normal. He stood, holding out one arm to clasp his brother's hand, looking just like he always had, before the events of the past several months. Iphicles turned toward his brother, his expression blank, and began walking hesitantly across the room. His gait was slow and unsteady, that of a man unsure how to walk. Iolaus wondered if the king was drunk; better men than Iphicles had succumbed to the lure of the bottle.
Iphicles took his brother's hand, a fleeting smile racing across his face before vanishing as he was pulled into a hug. It looked awkward; Iphicles' body stiffened, and he pulled back as if he had been burned. Hercules pretended not to notice, merely motioned to a nearby couch as if everything were perfectly normal.
They sat, and Iolaus noticed that Iphicles sat at the very edge of the pink sofa, as far from Hercules as possible, his back straight, legs stretched out rigidly. Hercules, meanwhile, sat in the center of the sofa, reaching out to touch his brother's shoulder, his blue eyes full of concern. He said something that Iolaus couldn't hear, and Iphicles shrugged, looking down at his hands, which twitched in his lap as if the king wasn't quite sure what to do with them. He raised one hand to his face and turned it, clenching the fingers into a fist, an expression of amazement on his face.
A shadow flitted across Hercules' face, prompting Iolaus to step forward, unsure of how his lover would deal with this bizarre behaviour from Iphicles. But the shadow quickly vanished, replaced with a cheerful smile as Hercules took his brother's hand in his own, speaking quietly and earnestly.
Iolaus could only hear scattered words, but he could see that Iphicles was becoming upset by what Hercules was saying. He frowned, shaking his head, his face set in its characteristic sullen expression. Hercules' smile became brighter, but his eyes glittered with the manic edge that Iolaus had become used to as he leaned forward, and Iphicles shrank back further against the arm of the sofa, pulling his hand from his brother's grip.
Hercules leaned back, taking several deep breaths, and Iolaus had to restrain himself from running forward and punching Iphicles. Hercules was using strength he didn't have to project confidence and strength for his brother, and Iphicles plainly didn't give a damn. He just looked bitter and angry, his mouth twisted into a surly scowl as he gestured wildly at Hercules, his face becoming flushed.
"Iolaus!" Iphicles' voice rang with authority, and Iolaus found himself standing, rushing toward the brothers before he even realized what he was doing. He deliberately slowed his gait and sauntered to the sofa, unwilling to be summoned by Hercules' spoiled brother, even if the man was a king.
"Iolaus, I can't believe you'd go along with this...this boneheaded plan of his! You're smarter than Herc, why don't you smack some sense into him?" Iphicles' face was flushed, and he looked like he wanted to do just that. Iolaus suddenly revised his previous opinion of the king. Maybe Iph was brighter than he had given him credit for.
"I've tried, but he won't listen to me," Iolaus said, standing behind Iphicles so both men could present a united front, glaring at Hercules.
"It's my life. My decision." Hercules was almost growling, forcing the words through clenched teeth, a tic at the side of his mouth the only sign he was losing control.
Iphicles leaned forward, clasping his brother's hands in his own, his thumbs gently massaging the demigod's wrists. "I know it's hard, believe me," he said, his voice low and hesitant. "We all have things we'd rather not deal with, but ignoring them doesn't help, it just makes them worse." He shrugged his shoulders, staring at his hands. "I mean, look at everything I've screwed up in my life. I tried to run from who I was, even tried pretending to be you, but it didn't help."
He gripped Hercules' hands tighter, looking into his brother's eyes, his face surprisingly open and hopeful. Iolaus began to feel badly about his previous treatment of the king; maybe there was more to Iphicles than he had been willing to see before. Maybe the two of them could work together to help Hercules.
"Herc, listen to him." Iolaus leaned forward, one hand squeezing Iphicles' shoulder in support as the king glanced at him in surprise. "Just give us a chance."
Hercules looked down at his lap, refusing to meet their eyes. "No."
Iphicles scooted closer, still holding his brother's hands in his own. "Let me help you, just this once. Please." His voice trembled as he whispered the words, and Iolaus heard something in those words, an unspoken plea he couldn't understand.
Hercules looked up, his blue eyes like a frozen pond, and he laughed. It was a brittle sound, devoid of anything even vaguely resembling humor. Iphicles wrenched his hands back, wiping them deliberately on his cloak as he stood. His face, like his brother's, was tightly shuttered, cold and contained, but his eyes burned with a furious flame and his cheeks were flushed as he turned away.
Hercules remained on the sofa, staring at his hands, one covering the other, his thumb rubbing his wrist, exactly as Iphicles had done, as he continued to laugh softly, the sound finally trailing off. Iolaus reached out and touched him, hesitantly, taking a large hand into his own and holding tight.
"I want to go home." Iolaus looked up to see Iphicles standing in front of Aphrodite and Hephaestus, hands clenched into fists, shoulders squared as he looked down at the two gods sitting on the sofa. Aphrodite stood, kissing Hephaestus on the tip of his nose, and nodded solemnly.
"Where to?" She sounded quiet, even apologetic.
"Back to the castle."
There was a tinkling sound, a shower of hearts and flower petals, and they vanished.
"Guess I screwed that up, huh?" Iolaus turned to find Hercules standing, staring at the floor again. "He actually offers to help and I just laugh at him. That was pretty lousy."
"Yeah." Iolaus stood, letting the silence grow as Hercules continued to stare at his feet.
"I just... all I could think of was how could he possibly understand? How do you tell your brother you're a monster?" He paused, taking a deep breath, speaking in a much smaller voice. "Besides, no matter how hard I try, no matter how good I try to be, I'm never good enough for him. He's always mad at me, and I always manage to screw things up when I'm around him. If he knew what I'm really like, he'd hate me forever, and I don't think I could take that."
"Herc, you're not a monster," Iolaus said, sighing. "And I may not be Iph's biggest fan, but maybe he could help. Like he said, he's got lots of experience with screwing things up." He tried to make it a joke, but he could feel it fall flat on its face. Self-conscious, he cleared his throat. "And he probably knows more about recovering from it too."
Hercules shook his head and sat down, leaning his head back against the sofa, exposing his throat, closing his eyes in exhaustion. "I'm just so tired of holding it all in. I want this all to be over, to get back to normal."
"Me too." Iolaus meant it, with all of his heart. While he didn't agree with Hercules' solution, he was glad to finally be able to move forward, or backward, or even sideways. Anything to get them out of the emotional bog which they had been mired in far too long. "Why don't we go lie down while we wait for Aphrodite? Sleep couldn't hurt."
Opening his eyes, Hercules sat up, nodding. "Yeah. I could use the rest."
Iolaus led him down the familiar hallways, following a pink stripe in the floor that helpfully provided a path, Hercules following listlessly like a tired puppy. When they reached their room, the demigod all but collapsed onto the bed, and Iolaus lay down beside him, holding his lover close, stroking his hair, kissing his temple. "It'll be over soon."
He continued to murmur nonsense into Hercules' ear until he felt the bigger man's breathing smooth out, growing deeper, and the lines disappeared from his face. It was only than that he laid back, closing his eyes to rest them, just for a moment.
The next thing he felt was a soft touch, delicate fingers running through his hair. Aphrodite's voice whispering in his ear, "It's over." He struggled up from the depths of his dream, trying to understand. The voice continued to whisper to him, and he felt warm breath tickling his ear. "Herc won't remember anything."
He knew this was both good and bad, but sleep clung to him, dragging him back, refusing to let him go. He felt smooth lips graze his cheek, a chaste kiss. "I'm sorry this all made you so sad. You should both be happy. I'm gonna take care of it for you, so you can both have a happy ending, okay?"
Iolaus understood, but understanding came too late; he felt himself being pulled into the void, unable to tell what was real and what was a dream, unable to remember why he had been so worried. And the comforting darkness claimed him as he felt something being stolen from him, something he vaguely understood to be incredibly important.